Home : Ex Libris : 1 December 1998

ex libris reviews

1 December 1998


IMPORTANT: Book reading is a solitary and sedentary pursuit, and those who do are cautioned that book should be used as an integral part of a well-rounded life, including a daily regimen of rigorous physical exercise, rewarding personal relationships, and a sensible low-fat diet. A book should not be used as a substitute or an excuse.
Garrison Keillor


Contents


In This Issue:
Evil Is As Evil Does

I'd like to note, just in passing, that this issue marks the second anniversary of our web page; Will & Jane's Book Page made its first appearance in December of 1996, and was recast into a monthly format in August of 1997. Little did I know....

This month we will be pondering the nature of good and evil. Evil plays a large role in almost every mystery novel, of which we have many this month; we will also be seeing various claims for what is good. First, though, I'd like to comment on a couple of books I reviewed in October: The Golden Compass and The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman. I'll quote from my review:

Much of what makes these books compelling is their focus on things that really matter. The Golden Compass, and The Subtle Knife, its sequel, are essentially about the role of religion, the nature of the soul, and the Fall of Man. And therein lies the only troubling part. For juveniles, the books are shockingly anti-clerical. The view espoused in the book is the Gnostic heresy: in Eden, Satan was trying to lift Adam and Eve up, to bring them knowledge and culture that God would forever deny them. The books make the claim that all culture, all inspiration in the world (ours as well as Lyra's) is the result of Satan's rebellion against God. Now a new battle is preparing; if God wins, men will become like cattle, dull, biddable, and contented.

Or is this the message of the books? There's one more book to go, and Pullman has surprised me several times in the first two books. Perhaps things still are not what they seem. I await the paperback publication of the next book eagerly; but I wouldn't give these to a teenager without blocking out lots of time to discuss them.

I recently came across a couple of comments by Pullman on the centenary of the birth of C.S. Lewis, of whom I am a great fan. Though I try not to preach in this forum (it's a book review page, not a pulpit), long time readers will be aware that I am a Christian; as such, I enjoy not only Lewis' fiction but also his theological writings. Pullman was quoted as one who is not a fan of Lewis, and I found his comments interesting. (Those who are interested may find these quotations in the November 24th issue of the Los Angeles Times; the article is on the front page.)

Writing in the London daily newspaper the Guardian, children's author Philip Pullman bemoaned all of the centenary hoopla and said: "The interesting question is why. What is there in this tweedy medievalist that attracts such devoted (and growing) attention?"

Acknowledging that Lewis had a way with words, Pullman went on to accuse him of misogyny, racism and excessive violence in the Narnia books, which he called "one of the most ugly and poisonous things I've ever read."

Now this is a truly fascinating statement. I'll pass quickly over the charges of misogyny, racism, and excessive violence, which to my mind are absurd. There are several strong female characters in the Narnia books (Lucy, Jill, and Polly); only Susan, as she grows into her teens, becomes vain and silly. I submit that this isn't misogyny; this is accurate observation of a certain fraction (a small fraction, one hopes) of the population. As for violence, Pullman's own books (and most popular fairy tales) are rather more violent. No, the charge that fascinates me most is that the Narnia books are "poisonous".

As I said in my review, Pullman's books have a strong philosophical foundation. This is most unusual in fiction; most books, if they have any philosophical bent at all, hew closely to the that of the prevailing culture. As a result, the author's world view has a tendency to vanish. Pullman's books, on the other hand, have a strong theological world view, and one that is antithetical to orthodox Christianity. It is notoriously perilous to deduce an author's beliefs from the author's fiction, but I believe Pullman has tipped his hand with his comments in the Guardian. For Narnia has its own theological foundation; the books began with Lewis' speculation of how Jesus, the Son of God, might manifest himself in another world. As Jesus died for many on the cross, so Aslan died for Edmund on the Stone Table. What else can Pullman find poisonous about the Narnia books but the underlying Christian foundation, which is so at odds with the underpinnings of his own books? I would further surmise (without proof, I admit) that Pullman is no gnostic, but rather is using gnosticism because of its antagonism towards Christianity.

Lewis said that he first experienced real holiness in a book called Phantastes, by George MacDonald. Somehow the book spoke to him of what is straight, and good, and true. I submit that the "tweedy medievalist" is popular for the same reason. No doubt there are many who dislike his books on philosophical grounds, and if they disagree with Lewis, they are right to do so. Meanwhile, my own appreciation of Pullman's books is slipping.

'Nuff said; I'll get off my soapbox now.

The offerings this month include some old favorites by Dorothy L. Sayers, more of Judge Dee by Robert van Gulik, a Bernie Rhodenbarr by Lawrence Block, and two books by master storyteller Garrison Keillor, among others.

In Times to Come

Books on the soon-to-be-read stack include novels by Robert van Gulik, George MacDonald Fraser, Anthony Powell, and David Weber.

-- Will Duquette


Books to Read Aloud

by Will Duquette

Someday, I promise, I will get back to my regular habit of reading aloud to Jane. I've finished Chapter 37 of my novel, and have reached the beginning of the end. I estimate that there will be 5 to 10 more chapters; at a rate of 5 chapters a month, it may be two months. With luck, though, it will go faster now; I hope to finish it by year's end.


Electronic Books:
Knights and Knaves

This month I've finished two electronic books in odd moments: lunch in the cafeteria, while walking out to my car after work, standing in line at the grocery store, and other dribs and drabs of time. Both are available at Mike's PalmPilot Library, http://www.pilotlibrary.org.

The White Company
By Arthur Conan Doyle

It took me well over a month to finish this book, but it was a delight from first to last. I selected it without any real notion of its contents; it is one of those books that one comes to know by reputation, through mentions in this book and that. Now I am only sorry I didn't encounter it earlier, as it is the best tale of "knights in shining armor" I've yet encountered. It takes place in the 14th century, during the 100 Years War between England and France. This was an interesting period; nation-states as we now know them simply didn't exist. Each nobleman had his own land, from the Kings of England and France on down; a kingdom was the combined land of the king and his nobles. William the Conqueror was Duke of Normandy before becoming King of England, and he and his heirs held on to their lands on the Continent. Thus, the King of England also held a large portion of what is now France as a vassal of the King of France. From France's point of view the land was French, and held by a disobedient duke; from England's point of view it was English, part of the desmesne of the King of England. This kind of misunderstanding can lead to serious conflict.

Virtually all of the battles in the 100 Years War (Crecy, Agincourt, et al) took place in France. As the war stretched on, France became a wasteland, preyed upon by free mercenary companies who would fight on one side or another when paid, and for themselves when unpaid. "The White Company" of the title is one such.

So much for the background. The book begins in England, in the county of Hampshire, where our hero, young Alleyne Edricson, has spent his childhood and youth in a monastery. His dying father had sent him there to be raised and educated, giving a large part of his property to the monastery as inducement. There was but one condition: foreseeing that his son might wish to join the order and become a monk, he stipulated that Alleyne, on reaching his twentieth year, must go out into the world for a full year before taking vows. The story and the year begin together; we follow Alleyne through a series of adventures in which he becomes squire to the famous knight Sir Nigel Loring, falls in love with Sir Nigel's daughter, fights in France and Spain and ultimately is knighted himself and weds the lovely lady. I trust I am not giving anything away in saying that; it's that sort of book, it could hardly end any other way.

It is a book of great charm, with many delightful characters and many comic moments. Reluctant monk Hordle John helps a lady across a stream and is cast out of the monastery; later he tricks a credulous woodsman out of his clothing. Nearsighted Sir Nigel, one of the greatest knights in Christendom, is ever looking for gentlemen (by whom he means other knights) who might undertake to uphold their lady's honor (by which he means that they might joust with him) that he might gain some small honor and advancement thereby (by which he means that he might increase his reputation). Alleyne himself serves as an observer, one in the world but not entirely of it.

When I think of knights in armor, I have usually thought of King Arthur: the Round Table, the quest for the Holy Grail, and all of that. And yet, The White Company is much closer to the inchoate idea of knights that I acquired from cartoons and storybooks when I was small than is Camelot. Here is my suspicion, unbacked by any real scholarship: the 14th century is a time when romances and stories of King Arthur were most popular (indeed, Sir Nigel's daughter is quite fond of such stories). When writing about the age of Arthur and his companions, they conferred upon it, in idealized form, the values and manners of their own day. When seen this way, The White Company becomes that much more interesting: it attempts to describe the people and places of 14th century England and France as they were, rather than as we would like them to be. I rather expect that Doyle had a sense of debunking other, less realistic tales. For all his valor, for example, the honorable Sir Nigel is essentially a comic figure.

And yet, if debunking was Doyle's goal he did not succeed. The book remains a fun, lighthearted, joyful romp, one which I will no doubt read again; and one which I will recommended to my son when he is old enough.

The Adventures of an Amateur Cracksman
By E.W. Hornung

This is the first book of tales about that archetypal figure, Raffles the gentleman jewel-thief. As I had seen obscure references to The White Company in this book and that, just so had I seen innumerable mentions of Raffles the thief (most recently in a book by Dorothy L. Sayers which I review below). As a result I pulled this volume down off of the electronic shelf, prepared to be enchanted. Alas, it was not to be; the book did not live up to its billing. I am forced to conclude that Raffles' position in literary history is due more to his originality and to his influence on later writers than to any innate quality of his own.

The book consists of eight stories, all told by a young English man-about-town with the unlikely nickname of "Bunny". Hard up for cash, he approaches his old school-friend, the well-known cricketer A.J. Raffles; Raffles inducts him into a life of crime. One of the more laughable aspects are Bunny's many protestations of moral distress as he is lead into a life of crime. I mean to say, this is a light novel about crime, not a psychological novel about moral degradation. Raffles is a late Victorian creation, though, so perhaps Bunny's protestations were necessary to allow the reader to enjoy the crimes fully.

One of the odder things about the book is how few jewels are actually stolen. Bunny protests that successful heists are seldom interesting, and only describes one. The remaining stories concern jobs that fail in one way or another, or never really get off of the ground. Bunny constantly tells us of Raffles' cunning and cleverness, but it's like a professional Magician's line of patter: the author keeps us too busy to realize that he's not quite clever enough himself to put together truly ingenious crims for Raffles to commit. In short, it's been done better: Bernie Rhodenbarr and Slippery Jim diGriz come immediately to mind.

It was adequate light reading for filling oddments of time, and interesting in a historical way, I suppose, but I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. I'm currently reading the sequel, simply titled Raffles, and it is much the same: mildly entertaining but not more than that. I'll review it next month if turns out to be better than I expect.


Will's Recent Reading

by Will Duquette

The Player of Games
By Iain M. Banks

I first read this nearly two years ago, in the week after my son Dave was born, and reviewed it briefly at that time. I enjoyed it even more this time around. Banks' science fiction novels are mostly about "The Culture", a space-faring civilization than spans the galaxy and thousands of years. The people of the Culture--the flesh-and-blood people, that is--are essentially human, though with a variety of interesting upgrades. They are not the descendants of the people of Earth; it is clear, rather, that Earth is a product of the Culture, or at least of the same race that ultimately produced the Culture. Many of the citizens of the Culture are not flesh-and-blood, but rather are machine intelligences, ranging in power from drones to the great Minds which largely run things.

By and large, members of the Culture are law-abiding people (or would be if the Culture had any laws) who believe in "live and let live". This attitude doesn't always work as well when dealing with alien races in new territories; hence the existence of the Culture's Contact branch, which deals with such matters. And for those serious problems, there's a part of Contact called Special Circumstances. In the present novel, Contact has encountered another civilization that poses a possible future threat to the Culture. This civilization, the Empire of Azad, is based upon a fiendishly complicated game, also called Azad. Just as the bureaucracy of Imperial China was based on examinations on the Confucian classics, so the bureaucracy of Azad is based on success at the game of Azad. There is this difference: the most skillful player becomes the Emperor. It is a game of power and position, of thoughts and ideas, of diplomacy and skullduggery. By guaranteeing that the most intellectual, skillful and ruthless rise to the top it has stabilized the Empire, while allowing great cruelty and inhumanity to be commonplace. Contact wishes to destabilize the society, and so Special Circumstances blackmails one of the Culture's foremost game players to go to the Empire of Azad and participate in the annual games.

The most entertaining part of any of Banks' Culture novels is the scale on which he thinks. He thinks big, and tosses off ideas in the most profligate way. Larry Niven based three separate novels on his Ringworld; to Banks, a Ringworld would be just one habitat among many. He is also more adventurous than most writers of science fiction; his books are complex in both structure and plot, and usually take at least one re-reading to fully appreciate. The Player of Games is an excellent introduction to the Culture because it is unusually linear and straightforward. I recommend it highly.

Commodore Hornblower
Lord Hornblower
Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies
By C.S. Forester

With these three books I bring the tales of Captain Horatio Hornblower nearly to the close. But one book remains, Hornblower During the Crisis, which I gather consists of one unfinished novel and some short stories. What I find most interesting about these books, which concern the height of Hornblower's career, is how little time he spends at sea. When I was a lad, I constantly heard the Hornblower books described as the archetypal sea-stories, and yet they mostly aren't.

Commodore Hornblower takes place in the Baltic; for most of the book, Hornblower is aiding the defenders in the seige of Riga. At issue are the attitudes of the Swedes and Russians toward Napoleon. Russia had been allied with Napoleon and Sweden uneasily neutral; Hornblower's orders were to bring them to the English side if at all possible. Sensing a change in loyalties, Napoleon marched on Moscow, and the rest is history. Oh, and Riga was saved, largely through Hornblower's efforts.

I often find Hornblower to be rather annoying. He makes mistakes, particularly in his private life, but no one important ever finds out about them. Publically, he never puts a foot wrong. He starts as nobody and rises to become first Sir Horatio and then Lord Hornblower, brother-in-law of Napoleon's nemesis the Duke of Wellington. He never has any trouble with the Admiralty, either; rather, they seek him out for difficult and sensitive missions. It makes me pine for Jack Aubrey. Ah, well.

Lord Hornblower takes place during the last days of Napoleon's reign, the subsequent peace, the Hundred Days, and Napoleon's final downfall. Once again, relatively little of it takes place at sea, though it begins well-enough; Hornblower is first appointed military governor of the city of Boulogne, and later leads a band of guerillas in the French countryside.

On the whole, I much preferred Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies. It is less a novel than a connected series of short stories, all taking place during Hornblower's tenure as commander on the West Indies station. The world is at peace, Napoleon is long since put down, and the once mighty squadron of Hornblower's predecessors is reduced to three frigates and a swarm of smaller vessels. There is a better balance of sea to land, and the story isn't so distorted by the need to put Hornblower right in the middle of world history. This one I can definitely recommend; though if you're going to get started with Hornblower you might as well read all of them.

The Chinese Nail Murders
The Emperor's Pearl
The Monkey and The Tiger
The Chinese Lake Murders
The Lacquer Screen
The Red Pavilion
The Haunted Monastery
Murder in Canton
Judge Dee at Work
By Robert van Gulik

I went into detail about Chinese magistrate Judge Dee last month (see The Chinese Maze Murders), so I won't repeat all of the background details here. Suffice it to say that these books were as entertaining as the three I read previously, and worthy of your attention. The Chinese Nail Murders and The Lacquer Screen were particularly good; The Monkey and The Tiger is actually two short novels published together, and was less satisfactory.

The first five books, each named something like The Chinese Such-and-Such Murders, feature Judge Dee's assistants Sergeant Hoong, Tao Gan, Ma Joong, and Chiao Tai, and take place in Judge Dee's own district. In the later books, van Gulik gets more adventurous; in each one or all of his assistants is off working on something else, or Judge Dee is travelling alone and ends up helping some other magistrate. I've not decided whether this is an improvement or not, as his assistants add much of the color.

Murder in Canton was particularly good; it is notable for being, chronologically, the last of the novels, and takes place in the trade city of Canton. Judge Dee, now President of the Metropolitan Court and Counsellor of the State, is looking into the disappearance of an imperial censor.

Judge Dee at Work is also noteworthy. It is a collection of short stories; the stores are all quite good; each somehow manages to give the feel of an entire full-length novel in a small space. In addition, the book includes a complete chronology of all of the books, putting each of the short stories into its proper place, and tracking major characters. This is quite useful, as the books were not written in chronological order.

The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee
By Robert van Gulik

Before van Gulik wrote any of his Judge Dee mysteries, he first translated an 18th century Chinese work, the Dee Goong An. Detective stories are an ancient form in China evidently, and he wanted to bring them to the attention of modern readers. Alas, the Dee Goong An is only partially typical of the ancient Chinese form; it is the only one van Gulik found that he felt would appeal to Westerners. When I found out it at a local Barnes & Noble is snapped it up immediately. Although I have van Gulik's other books in University of Chicago Press editions, this one is published by Dover; I've also seen it listed as Famous Cases of Judge Dee, and I rather expect that that is the name of the University of Chicago Press edition (if there is one).

Reading the Dee Goong An was both fascinating and disappointing. One cannot, of course, judge the quality of Chinese prose in English translation, but I would not hesitate to say that van Gulik's own books are more interesting and more entertaining. In particular, in his own books van Gulik spends more time on details of the exotic Chinese background; the author of the Dee Goong An had no reason to do so. Judge Dee's four assistants, while present in the Chinese original, only become real characters in van Gulik's hands; here they are little but animate plot devices. Nevertheless, all of the structure and formal elements found in van Gulik's novels are present here, with explanatory notes and background detail. If that is of any interested, The Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee may be worth your time; otherwise I'd give it miss.

Wicked
By Gregory Maguire

Subtitled "The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West", this book purports to be a history of the Land of Oz from the arrival of the Wizard to the slaying of the Wicked Witch by Dorothy Gale of Kansas. Maguire's Oz is a far cry from L. Frank Baum's magical land. So far as I can tell, Maguire's Oz is intended to be Oz as it really is--while Baum's Oz is the sanitized version, like a children's version of Times Square in New York City. In Maguire's Oz, the Wizard is an evil interloper who oppresses the primitive Quadling people and the Talking Animals; Glinda the Good Witch is a Gillikin socialite who is hand-in-glove with the Establishment; the Wicked Witch of the East is a religious fanatic who turns Munchkinland into a theocracy and rebels against the Wizard; and the Wicked Witch of the West is a radical intellectual. In school she really wanted to learn things, unlike her roommate, Glinda. After graduation, she drops out of sight as part of a guerilla movement to save the Talking Animals. Eventually, faced with her lover's death, she retires to the land of the Winkies, eventually ending up as sole owner of the only castle in that part of Oz.

I had very mixed emotions about this book. The first part, which deals with the witch's birth and childhood, is rather shocking. The second, dealing with her schooling, is rather funny. The third, dealing with her radicalism, is rather tedious. The fourth, dealing with her exile and death, is not only rather tedious, but also rather strained. It endeavours to match up with the story of Dorothy Gale, and succeeds only by doing violence to the character developed in the previous parts. I have a more serious complaint, however. The book is clearly intended to ask the question, "Just what is wickedness, anyway?"; it just as clearly is intended to invert what we think we know about Oz. For example, Glinda the Good is a tool of the elite, helping to keep the downtrodden under foot, while the Wicked Witch of the West is an activist who tries to help them. If the Witch becomes wicked, it is society's fault; she has always been marginalized because of her green skin, and has been driven to do horrible things to achieve a greater good. Glinda, on the other hand, is viewed as good only because she is good as those in power define the term. Wicked succeeds (until the climax) as an inversion; it fails as a study of good and evil. The answers are too simple, and too much in line with the consensus of our liberal postmodern society. In short, it simply reports what many would like to hear, without bringing any new ideas to the discussion. And people like to hear what they like to hear; or, at least, that is the only way I can explain all of the rave reviews inside the front cover.

It is an interesting work, and I'm not sorry I read it, but I think it could have been ever so much better.

The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza
By Lawrence Block

Block's publisher has been reprinting all of his Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries; this is the last but one to be reprinted, and sorry I shall be when I finish the next one and have no more to look forward to. Bernie is entertaining as always, and the usual cast of characters is greatly in evidence. This isn't the best of the Bernie books, perhaps, but it is far from the worst, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. (Those of you who just tuned in--check the last few issues for more information.)

Sharpe's Sword
By Bernard Cornwell

This is the fifth of Cornwell's tales about Captain Richard Sharpe of the British Army; the series as a whole covers most of the Peninsular Campaign in the Napoleonic wars, and culminates with the Battle of Waterloo. In previous issues I've said many nice things about this series, which dovetails nicely with the Hornblower books and with Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels. The books do give an outstanding picture of what war was like during that era; to that extent Cornwell does for the land war what O'Brian does the for the sea war. But I wish I could like them more than I do.

Richard Sharpe has the opposite problem from Horatio Hornblower: he must do everything the hard way. He must be rude to superior officers, he must make every possible mistake (except when it comes to fighting), he must never win anything easily. It's just a little overdone to my taste. At the beginning of each book I know he is going to be unfaithful to his wife because he can't help myself, though he tries; that he will have a deadly enemy; that his attempts to kill the enemy will be almost mystically unsuccessful until the final pages; that he will be nearly torn to shreds and survive; that the book will end on an up note that won't last past the beginning pages of the next book in the series; and so on, and so forth. I'll probably make my way through the remaining books over the next few years, but I'm in no great rush.

The Book of Guys
By Garrison Keillor

I don't buy Keillor in hardcover, so I skipped this one when it first came out; and then I didn't notice the paperback until just recently, when I jumped on it. Keillor is one of the best storytellers we have at present, with a wry understanding of human nature, an excellent sense of timing, and real wit.

Alas, he is also something of a cynic at times, and in The Book of Guys the cynic is ascendant. I did not enjoy this book, though I read it eagerly, and though it occasionally made me laugh out loud. It is not a pleasant book. It is about human frailty and human strangeness, almost without relief. In it, every marriage is a battle for dominance, every man a latent polygamist, every woman a controlling--well, I won't go there.

That said, The Book of Guys contains many interesting, memorable stories, stories which would be much easier to take one at a time, maybe over a period of months. (It also contains stories which are just plain weird.) If you like Keillor, buy the book; then ration yourself. Don't read it all at once like I did.

Wobegon Boy
By Garrison Keillor

I bought a paperback of Wobegon Boy on the same trip to the bookstore as The Book of Guys; it is a much more satistfactory book, indeed, much better than I had feared. Better than I had feared? Yes. You see, one of the most obnoxious, self-centered, downright embarassing characters in Lake Wobegon Days is intellectual high-school student Johnny Tollefson, a character whom I have always suspected of representing Keillor himself. I can't read those passages in Lake Wobegon Days without squirming (I have a low threshold for embarrassment; I can't sit still for mistaken identity plots either). I rather expected that Wobegon Boy would pick up with Johnny where the earlier book left off, and feared I was in for more unpleasantness. Thus, and especially right after The Book of Guys, I opened it with some trepidation. My fears were groundless; it was a delightful book, and I recommend it.

Stylistically it has many differences from Lake Wobegon Days. To begin with, it's told by Johnny himself in the first person, a very different thing than the usual Garrison Keillor omniscient narrator first person. For another, it is devoid of the usual nostalgia. Keillor's News from Lake Wobegon always seems to come to us through corrective rose-colored glasses; if he sees accurately, he also sees through a tinge of nostalgia. In this book, the nostalgia is entirely absent. Johnny is simply talking about his life, his trials, his adventures and so forth. The impression I get is that Keillor's Lake Wobegon is somewhat idealized, while remaining quirky and imperfect; Johnny Tollefson's Lake Wobegon is the real thing. Keillor sees his characters through a haze of affection; Johnny sees them as they are, which is both more and less interesting.

I have only one complaint about Wobegon Boy: there is no sense of danger. One of the expectations one has in Keillor's work is that if things are going well, it won't last; bad times will come again. I was always waiting for something bad to happen, and either it didn't when I expected it, or when it did it just didn't seem to matter all that much. I dunno; perhaps that was Keillor's goal: to emphasize how unimportant some of our life's disasters really are. Ah, well.

Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon
By Lisa Goldstein

I first read this when it was brand new, several years ago. I was looking for something good to re-read the other night, saw it, and pulled it off of the shelf. All I could remember about it was that I had enjoyed it considerably; that it was a truly outstanding book. Indeed, I'd noticed it any number of times previously, and said to myself, "Yes, that was a truly outstanding book, absolutely delightful, I'll have to read it again some day." While remembering none of the details, I was somehow confident that it was one of the best books I'd read in the last few years.

Alas. It's OK. I'll even give it a "pretty good". It was worth re-reading, even. But any magic it had for me the first time has gone, if it was ever there. I wondering now if maybe I had read two books close together and the magic of one spilled over to this one. Be that as it may.

Strange Devices of the Sun and Moon takes place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I of England. Christopher Marlowe is one of the up-and-coming young playwrights; Doctor Faustus has just been a wildly popular success (Shakespeare is still little known). Marlowe is also a spy for Elizabeth's councilor, Lord Walsingham. That's one thread. Alice Wood is a bookseller, one of the privileged few licensed by the queen to hold copyrights. She is the only female member of the company of booksellers, having entered upon the death of husband, who had been a member. That's another thread. Oriana, Queen of Faerie, had a son whom she wished to protect against the Red King, so she exchanged him with a human boy: Alice's son Arthur. That's the third thread. The changeling is now an adult--a fey hapless fellow he is--and the armies of Queen Oriana and the Red King are gathering of battle. Who will win? Who will find the changeling first? What will become of Alice Wood and Christopher Marlowe?

The Land of Faerie motif has been rather overdone in the last couple of decades; I can name any number of similar books, and if you read this sort of thing, so can you. Goldstein's book is better than most, and she's researched her period better than most as well. A pity she didn't write it twenty years ago.

Strong Poison
Have His Carcase
Gaudy Night
Whose Body?
Clouds of Witnesses
Unnatural Death
Busman's Honeymoon
By Dorothy L. Sayers

Several weeks ago I got a letter from a close friend inquiring about which of Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey novels were which. That planted a bee in my bonnet and lead me to re-read Strong Poison. Once started, I was unable to stop until I'd re-read all but \ three of the Lord Peter novels on my bookshelf, plus Whose Body?, the first in the series, which I had somehow missed previously.

If you like mysteries, and you have not read Dorothy L. Sayers, shut down your computer, run to the bookstore, and buy her books. Alternatively, just switch over to Amazon.com and order them. Don't worry, I'll wait.

Lord Peter Wimsey is one of the greatest amateur sleuths in all of the genre; he is upper-class, Oxford-educated, witty, misleadingly foolish. Listening to the words Sayers puts in his mouth affects me the way champagne is supposed to. As his beloved Harriet Vane puts it, he piffles so marvelously. Yet the Wimsey novels are not simply "character" mysteries in which the hero bumbles along until the mystery solves itself; they are also puzzle mysteries to rival Agatha Christie's (a combination I'm not convinced Dame Agatha ever achieved).

It is important to read the books in the order they were written, at least the first time, starting with Whose Body? and ending with Busman's Honeymoon, because events and people carry over from one book to the next. The writing improves somewhat, as well, and the stories become immeasurably deeper and more serious (while retaining a froth of wit and good humor on top).

Whose Body? is a light, bouncy mystery, if a little clumsy; I picked out the murderer in the first chapter, not because of any evidence but simply because it was obvious. It is good fun for all that, so don't judge it too harshly.

Clouds of Witnesses was quite good, and much better than I remembered; in fact, it was nothing like what I remembered, from which I assume I was confusing it with something else.

Unnatural Death introduces the ever capable Miss Climpson, an aging spinster who becomes one of Lord Peter's most useful aides. As an old maid, she has quiet, unremarkable entre to many places where Lord Peter's arrival would cause a stir lasting for weeks. She also speaks and writes with unusual EMPHASIS!!

Miss Climpson returns in Strong Poison, in which Lord Peter saves mystery writer Harriet Vane from hanging for a murder she did not commit. This is also the first book in a subseries about Lord Peter and Harriet; it is also the first one I read when I first discovered Peter Wimsey.

Have His Carcase is more about Harriet Vane than Lord Peter; Harriet finds a corpse on the beach and gets involved in one of Lord Peter's murder investigations. I read this after Strong Poison, and I tried to read it aloud to Jane, mostly because I though Strong Poison would read well aloud. (I didn't want to reread Strong Poison so soon, you understand.) It was a mistake; Have His Carcase was thoroughly tedious at the pace of the spoken word, and I ended up finishing it by myself. This time it was much, much more enjoyable.

Gaudy Night is almost completely about Harriet Vane; it is also the book in which she finally succumbs to Wimsey's repeated proposals of marriage. It takes place in a small women's college in Oxford. I found this one almost unintelligible the first time I read it, I don't know why; I found it delightful this time through.

Busman's Honeymoon was written less as a mystery and more as a lark; Sayers had many readers who wanted to know what happened with Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, and I daresay she wanted to know herself. This is the book that resulted. Having taken many precautions to hide their wedding from the press and have a peaceful honeymoon in their new country home, they discover that the previous owner was murdered. It's a comedy of errors, with many passages that made me laugh out loud; it's also a deeply serious book about getting one's heart's desire, and what happens after. Highly recommended.


Children's Books

A Light in the Attic
Where the Sidewalk Ends
Falling Up
By Shel Silverstein

Over the last couple of years we've been buying books for Dave, expecting that he'll eventually grow into them. These are not among them; no, we bought the first two books in the above list long before Dave was born. For those of you that aren't familiar with them, these are books of truly wonderfully warped poems, along with Silverstein's own truly wonderfully warped drawings. They include such classics as "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out", "Someone Ate The Baby", and the following little ditty:

There are too many kids in this tub
There are too many tummies to scrub
I just washed a behind that I'm sure wasn't mine
There are too many kids in this tub!

That's quoted from memory, mind you, so don't shoot me if I got a word or two wrong. A few days ago I pulled Falling Up off of the shelf and commenced to read a few of the poems to Dave at bedtime; he wasn't noticeably impressed. After humoring his dear old dad for a little while, he grabbed one of his board books and demanded that I read it instead. Sigh. You can expose 'em to literature, but you can't dictate their taste.


Letters

ex libris is a monthly feature; I get letters every month; I generally expect that the letters I get will relate to the previous month's offering. Oddly enough, this is rarely the case, and the letters I got this month are a case in point. The first is from Jo Bell:

I really enjoyed your story about your dog. I think it was very touching. They can certainly become part of your lives with in a short time.

I'm simply amazed; my poor old dog Skipper passed away last April, and my memorial for him appeared in the May 1st issue. And darn it, it still brings tears to my eyes.

Reader Robert Norman isn't in quite as long a time warp; he says:

Hey, folks,

Just a professional bookseller cruising around on the web. Stumbled across your page while doing research for my father (who has no computer...or any idea of what he could find on the web) on Sharpe's Rifles.

Anyway, this is just a compliment on your site. Well, I would say it as a matter of course since y'all read Pratchett and B. Cornwell ;-); I liked your reviews, and especially the children's book reviews. I'm writing a web page for my store, and I'm putting links to good book-oriented webpages on it. Our crew is very much into books. I know my library has grown far too much since I started here two years ago. I think my co-workers would very much like to see your page. Any objections?

Again, great page. I'll be bookmarking it for my own perusal at a later date.

Of course I told him to go ahead and make the link; if I didn't want to be read I wouldn't write a web page. In this connection I'd like to quote Francis Bacon, as quoted by Peter Wimsey in Dorothy Sayers's Busman's Honeymoon:

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, writing an exact man.

Not a bad set of goals, I'd say.


Have any comments? Want to recommend a book or two? Think Will's seriously missed the point and needs to be corrected? Like to correspond with one of the reviewers? Write to us and let us know what you think! You can find the e-mail addresses of most of our reviewers on our Ex Libris Staff page.


Home : Ex Libris : 1 December 1998
Copyright © 1998, by William H. Duquette. All rights reserved.
Search this site:
 

• The View from the Foothills
• Previous Issue
• Next Issue
• Once-Told Tales
• Staff
• Links
• FAQs About Us
• Subscribe

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More

Sites we like:

James Lileks
Banana Oil
2 Blowhards
God of the Machine
Goliard Dream
Reflections in d minor
Instapundit
Slashdot
Gizmodo
Blithering Idiot